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Back to School In a Strange New World

This fall, some students will be returning to in-person school after an extended period of online learning. Psychology professor Idia Thurston offers tips to help smooth the transition back for students and families.

Tiarra Drisker ‘25

Thurston explained that parents and teachers both have a major role to play in helping students of all ages transition back into in-person learning.

After a year of online classes, students and their parents across the country are preparing for the return of in-person school (either full- or part-time) as COVID-19 cases and deaths have decreased from peak numbers last year. This change is expected to take a physical and mental toll on young people, teachers, and caregivers alike.

To prepare for a return to traditional educational settings, Idia Thurston Ph.D., an associate professor jointly appointed in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and the School of Public Health, encourages families to work together to create routines and have open conversations.

“One of the most important factors for resilience and coping with adversity is social support,” Thurston shared. “It is critical that parents actually listen to their young people instead of projecting their own fears onto them.”

Many adults and caregivers are returning to their workplaces in-person as well. Though returning to the workplace while the pandemic is still ongoing gives many adults anxiety, this can be used as a way to empathize with students. As far as dealing with fears and worries, Thurston recommends that caregivers stay positive but realistic, allow young people to communicate, and mirror the behavior they want to see. 

“Listen to them and validate the fears that they have,” Thurston advised. “Understand that adolescents, even if they don’t show that vulnerability or fear, are experiencing those feelings as well.”

Students have endured many losses through this pandemic, including the loss of experiences that are critical to the development of young people. Graduations and proms were cancelled. Students could not see their friends or teachers for an extended period of time. Thurston said that this is where the teachers become even more vital.

“Teachers have a major role in young people’s lives. They have control over the type of classroom setting that they create and the classroom atmosphere,” Thurston explained. “Teachers need to create a space that allows for adjustment and mourning of what has been lost.”

Young people experienced different types of loss and different experiences within the pandemic. This is why, Thurston said, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to getting young people back into educational settings successfully.

“The biggest mistake we could make is thinking that everyone’s experience was the same and not take time to understand how the pandemic has impacted people differently,” Thurston shared. “We need to customize our strategies based on the experiences they are having rather than assuming everyone has been impacted by the pandemic in the same way.”

In the coming months, young people, caregivers, and teachers need to work together to find an educational setting that accommodates everyone. Thurston emphasized the importance of understanding that we are going through this together as human beings to be ultimately successful in transitioning back to more traditional classroom settings.

“We need a lot of patience and a lot of remembering that we are all struggling through this together. At the end of the day, we’re all going through this human experience together,” Thurston said. “If we can center our humanity in this and understand it’s challenging for the adolescents, parents, teachers, and administrators we can navigate this environment as one community.”